Understanding Chronic Illness and Suffering

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If I’m suffering, I want it to have a purpose; if there’s meaning in the pain, won’t that help me through it? Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Or maybe not.

“It’s not fair.”

I’ve said these words many times throughout my life. Sometimes I’ve directed them at God as I endured chronic stomach pain. Something intrinsic within us says life should be fair — evil punished, good people living long lives, hard workers paid decent wages, the innocent being freed. But life doesn’t work that way.

For a few weeks, I kept getting text messages from a friend. I had been on her mind lately, and she was praying for me. She kept asking me if I was feeling better, to the point where I just wanted to say yes so she would stop asking. I was experiencing constant flare-ups of nausea and stomach pain, and I was not getting better. In fact, it was unlikely I would get better. That’s the thing with chronic illness — it’s chronic. I didn’t feel cared about because of her messages; I felt like I was a Jack-in-the-Box she was turning, hoping to see a miracle pop out.

People, including me, want to find order in chaos. If I’m suffering, I want it to have a purpose (and apparently so do other people who see me suffering); if there’s meaning in the pain, won’t that help me through it? Maybe God’s trying to teach me something. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe the pain is my fault and I can fix it. Or maybe it’s not and I can’t.

There must be a reason!

In “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Others Lies I’ve Loved,” Kate Bowler wrote, “Christians want me to reassure them that my cancer is all part of a plan. A few letters even suggest that God’s plan was that I get cancer so I could help people.… ‘I hope you have a Job experience,’ writes one man bluntly, and I can’t think of anything worse to wish on someone.’”

God has made a purpose for my pain. I’ve grown in my faith and am constantly learning to have joy throughout trials (James 1:2). But that does not mean He has inflicted this suffering upon me.

In the book, Bowler detailed her experience: diagnosed with Stage IV cancer with little time left to live, she received well-meaning but destructive comments from friends and strangers alike. I nodded along whiled I read her words because I’ve received enough unsolicited advice and commentary about my illness to last several lifetimes.

Someone suggested I’m ill because I don’t have enough faith, and hearing that made we want to upchuck the meager amount of food I’d been able to eat that day. What a dangerous thing to say to someone who is already drained, who is already fighting depression because the constant discomfort is exhausting, who is already wondering why a God who loves her is letting her go on like this.

I’ve come to accept that this pain isn’t God’s original plan for me, but He helps me find purpose through it and I can encourage others because of it. I’m in pain because life isn’t fair — it’s chaotic. And God still loves me through it.

We desire control.

We long for control of our lives. And there’s nothing like an illness, when your body behaves in ways you don’t intend, that screams, “Your are not in control!”

“Control is a drug, and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel’s assurance that we can master the future with our words and attitudes,” wrote Bowler.

And I think that’s part of the reason people want there to be a solution to my illness. It’s partly the reason people pray to God as if He were a vending machine ready to dispense blessings as soon as they’re entered in heaven’s number pad (just don’t accidentally press triple sixes or you’ll be struck by lightning). It’s partly why people are determined to solve my illness with suggestions of recipes, alternative treatments, exercises, exorcisms and herbal supplements that will certainly cure me. And if I don’t have control, maybe that means they don’t either.

If there isn’t a reason behind my illness, life becomes a chaotic mess and pain might need to be borne instead of healed instantly. But like Kate Bowler, I’d rather have someone hold my hand in silence than tell me that my pain is “for a reason.” I’d rather believe in a God who is right there during my suffering, allowing it to happen but empowering me to continue on, rather than believe God is punishing me with this suffering. I’d rather let go of control, accept that we weren’t promised a fair and prosperous life, and then do the best I can to love God in my brokenness.

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About the Author

Allison Barron

Hailing from the cold reaches of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Allison is the general manager of Geekdom House, executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is usually preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.

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